Learning to make good soup has been a lot of trial and error for me. When I started out I would make the rookie mistake of just throwing everything into a pot and covering it with water. Now I know you need to build a soup gradually, nurturing it along, adding each item at just the right moment to let the flavors layer onto each other for just the right amount of time.
My lentil soup recipe is very representative of this philosophy. When I started making lentil soup, it was – well – depressing. Brown and gloppy, and overwhelmingly lentil-y. Even when I added chopped ham it was far from inspiring. Then I discovered French green lentils, which helped tremendously. Then I discovered adding enough stock to let the lentils dance around in the bowl instead of binding into mush. Then the addition of noodles and chunks of spicy pork sausage crowned the rendition. I still vary the soup considerably, but I seldom veer from the basic formula. It works.
First, the broth. Every time I roast a chicken I make a simple stock from the carcass, and freeze it in variously sized containers. I will often just thaw a quart or so of stock, then add water to fill out the pot. Every bit of extra flavor helps, but don’t feel the need to use nothing but stock, especially if the other ingredients are assertive. Get the stock and any additional water warm and ready to go before you start cooking.
I start building the soup with some aromatic vegetables. Often this is nothing but some diced carrot and sliced garlic, sauteed in olive oil until it begins to brown, but if I happen to have celery and onion on hand I’ll throw those in as well. Sometimes a bay leaf goes in, or a sprig of thyme.
After the vegetables have softened and browned, I wash the lentils and stir them in. Once they are coated with the olive oil and mingled with the vegetables, I pour in the stock. Once the liquid is at a boil, I cover the pot and turn it down to simmer. About half an hour usually does it – I want the lentils tender enough to eat but not getting mushy.
More liquid – water or stock – can be added now, and some salt. Sometimes I add a can of tomatoes, sometimes a handful of frozen spinach. I bring it all back to a boil and add some pasta – usually bowties, but gemelli or macaroni or shells would all do. The soup then simmers just until the pasta is cooked.
While the soup burbles, I cook the sausages. For one pot of soup I like to use about a pound of hot Italian cased sausage. Our local grocery makes these in-house, and they’re spicy enough to perk up a large pot of lentils all by themselves. I cook them in a covered skillet with just a bit of water for ten minutes, then uncover the pan, boil off the water and sear them in their own fat until they brown.
Once the sausages are cool enough to handle I slice them thickly, then toss them into the soup pot as soon as the pasta is finished cooking. Then I turn off the heat, because I don’t want the sausage pieces to overcook. The soup is now ready to eat, or to put away in the fridge for later – always a good idea, since it lets the sausage flavor permeate the lentils. The soup reheats well, and can be frozen in individual containers for lunches – the pasta’s texture suffers slightly but not enough to bother us. We never have enough leftovers to satisfy us – so I just make more.